OK, so I’ve been meaning to write a post on Robert Altermeyer’s research into right-wing authoritarianism for several years, and especially since I wrote my “howl” on Mindless Ones six months ago (and how petty the concerns in that piece look with the hindsight of six months more of 2016. Remember when fascists only had control of the science fiction awards, and when sexual harassers were only in charge of Superman comics? Good times…)
I’ve been putting it off and putting it off and putting it off because it needs some kind of formal explanation, and I’ve just not been able to gather the information in precisely the correct way to get it across, and that research is such an integral part of my mental toolkit that I think it needs to be dealt with right now.
Except that I’ve not managed to post about it at all, letting the best be the enemy of the good, and now I’m having a hard time explaining why I’m considerably more freaked out by the Trump presidency than any other cis straight white men are.
So I’m going to splurge all this stuff out in a handful of posts over the next few days, interspersed with posts about comics and music and other things. It’ll be the stream-of-consciousness style of writing, rather than laying everything out formally and neatly and with all the is dotted and ts crossed. If you want a formal explanation of the stuff I’m talking about, read Robert Altermeyer’s book The Authoritarians, a 261-page book available legally for free here. A warning, though — this book about psychology research may give you nightmares.
And this first post, I’ll explain why as simply as possible.
Robert Altermeyer is an extremely respected researcher in social psychology, and he has found a couple of tests which manage, with very high accuracy, to distinguish two different axes on which people differ.
(One of these tests he developed himself — another was developed by Sidanius and others but used by Altermeyer in his research).
One of these axes he calls “right-wing authoritarianism” — a term he has himself admitted is unreasonably loaded. In American and British society, people with this kind of personality type tend to be conservative, but in other cultures they aren’t always, and there is nothing intrinsic about the political right wing that makes right-wing people be “right-wing authoritarians”. For that reason, among others, I’ll just refer to those people as RWAs from now on.
One thing to make very clear is that one’s RWA status is *not* a predictor or measure of personal morality in any way — this is something that Altermeyer makes very clear. RWAs tend to have some virtues that non-RWAs don’t have, although they also tend not to have some that non-RWAs do have.
The other thing to make clear here is that everything in Altermeyer’s research is about statistical averages for groups, not something where you can say “you score X on this test, therefore you do Y”. All one can say from it is that in a group of people where more than X% score more than Y on the test, Z is more likely to happen. People are individuals.
The same goes for the other test that is used in Altermeyer’s research, the one he didn’t create, the Social Domination Orientation test. This test measures, more or less, how much you think that you should be the person in charge, and if not you then someone as much like you as possible. Again, definitely not a morality test on the individual level in any way.
(These are oversimplifications, but roughly right. Again, if you want the fine detail, read the book.
Also, because I know people will ask, I’ve taken the tests myself, but in unsupervised situations with no predictive validity. I have a bit over a third of the average male score for SDO — just under half the average female score — and I get 5% on the RWA scale, with higher scores indicating higher RWAness. Again, on the individual rather than aggregate level these things have no predictive power, so I wouldn’t assume anything about my own behaviour or beliefs from that.)
This next section is also slightly simplified, but the basics are right. For 100% accuracy, read the book, follow the references.
Now, there’s a thing called the World Game. You play it on a giant map of the world spread out on the floor. People are assigned to various countries, and you have to try to make trade deals, go to war, whatever. Nation-state stuff. You’re trying to get the best for your country.
Each country is assigned a few people to make the decisions between themselves, and the goal is to try to do as well as possible in a fixed number of turns.
Altermeyer and his colleagues set up a few rounds of the World Game. In some rounds they put a normal mixture of people, told them the rules, and set them going. The result was as you’d expect — people figured out that it worked out better if they co-operated with each other in trade deals and so on. The world made a fair bit of progress in eradicating diseases and famine, and in boosting the living standards of the poorest people.
In another round, they put just RWAs, with no high-SDO people. The RWAs mostly kept to their own countries, didn’t talk to anyone outside any more than necessary, didn’t trade with anyone except for the bare minimum. There were a few minor wars and famines. Things got a little worse.
Finally, they took a group of just RWAs, but in each country there was one RWA with a high SDO score as well. In each country, the high-SDO person instantly took charge, either directly or by becoming the “most-trusted advisor” to a figurehead who was nominally in charge but didn’t do anything without the high-SDO person saying so. Everyone else was happy with this, as most RWAs are (statistically, on average, as a group) really uncomfortable with being in charge.
That group ended with a nuclear holocaust destroying the entire population of the world.
And in both RWA-group cases, none of the people involved thought, afterward, that anything could possibly have gone differently. They didn’t *want* a nuclear holocaust, or the wars and famines, but there was nothing else they could possibly have done. They wouldn’t change a thing.
And while there are of course multiple causes for any major political event, voting for Trump seems to correlate very well with being an RWA. And while I haven’t seen Trump take an SDO test, I’d not bet on him scoring very low on it.
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